A face with
regular features and adolescent chubbiness, big velvety eyes and a gaze with a
hint of melancholy, as if she were seeing the life that lay before her: in the
extant portrait of Olympia she is wearing sumptuous clothes with the starched
lace collar of the Spanish fashion of the time. To tone down the stiff
preciosity of the whole, her hair is gathered softly in a delicate headdress consisting
of small flowers dangling about her face, almost as if to caress it. It is Olympia in her first
youth, the precocious and brilliant little girl who joined the cultured,
elegant and opulent atmosphere of the d’Este family’s court.
Olympia, the daughter of Fulvio Pellegrino Morato and Lucrezia Gozi, was born
in Ferrara in
1526. She received her first humanist education from her father, a refined man
of letters and a Latin teacher. Through him, fascinated by the thinking of Erasmus
and convinced of the need for a profound renewal of the Church, she embraced
the doctrine of the Reformation. Olympia’s
entrance into the court as study companion of Anna d’Este, the first child of
Ercole ii, Duke of Ferrara and of
Renée of France, afforded her an extraordinary opportunity: excellent teachers,
a well-endowed library and contact with a large number of cultured people.
It was a
happy time consisting of enthusiastic study and of many discoveries. Olympia, who soon moved with
ease between Greek and Latin, began to compose poems, commentaries on classical
authors, translations whose style still shows a certain scholastic woodenness
but reveals culture, sensitivity and a surprising flare for analysis. Olympia discovered she
had talent and did not regret it as happened at that time to so many women who,
destined to “governance of the family” or to the convent, did not regard cleverness
as a gift but as a condemnation. On the contrary, despite having been born a
woman she claimed forcefully the freedom to live among “the flowered fields of
the Muses”. The spindle, needle and loom, symbolic instruments of the hemmed-in
life of women, held no attraction for her. For Olympia, who followed the infinite voices
contained in books, their sound was merely “silence”.
atmosphere of her family and then that of the court fostered Olympia’s adherence to the Reformation. The
Duchess Renée had in fact given life to a refined cenacle that welcomed
reformed humanists and French exiles suspected of heresy: it was small court in
the heart of the d’Este court which even offered hospitality to Calvin, who arrived
in Ferrara in
1536 under a false name.
turning-point came in 1548. Olympia
left the court to nurse her dying father and was unable to return, distanced together
with others from Ercole, who was bent on fighting the breath of heresy that
threatened his splendid but fragile dukedom, a fiefdom of the State of the
Church. Two years later she married Andreas Grunthler, a young German doctor
who supported the Reformation, and to escape persecution the couple decided to
leave for Germany.
In Europe, ablaze with religious strife, Olympia
made her life a testimony. She devoted herself to studying Scripture and
meditated on topics such as freedom of conscience, the dignity of women and the
power of faith that was capable of “overcoming the world”.
In the aching
nostalgia of her emotions literature became correspondence. She wrote to her
relatives, women friends, humanists and Protestant theologians in an intense
and involving dialogue which celebrated together both human and divine love.
every land is the homeland of the strong” she courageously came to terms with
the stages of their sad exile: Kaufbeuren, Würzburg and lastly Schweinfurth, where
they lived through the long siege of the city and were saved thanks to an
In rags and tatters and consumed by a burning
fever, Olympia finally reached the erudite city
They no longer possessed anything, even their books and manuscripts had been
lost, but the couple was saved. A peaceful period seemed at last to be
unfolding. Andreas obtained a chair of medicine at the university, Olympia taught Latin and
Greek and rewrote what she remembered of her lost works.
meantime her illness was taking its toll. Her last letter was to the humanist
Celio Secondo Curione, whom she loved as a second father, the teacher who
believed in religious tolerance and in the value of knowledge in order to pass
from “the shadow of things” to the “things” themselves. Olympia died of consumption on 26 October
1555. She was just 29 years old.
Francesca Romana de’ Angelis